The Rhetoric of Fear:
Aristotle, Plato, and Zombies
In the spirit of Halloween, I would like to start with a clichéd argument between a mad scientist and his servant, hunchbacked Igor. The scene: the scientist is in his laboratory, where flasks with questionable contents line the tables. One with an acid green liquid pops and fizzles. Outside, rain batters the window panes, and lightning crackles. Enter Igor, arms stuffed with boxes containing such things as spider legs and frog eyes. The scientist exclaims, “Igor!”, making his servant jump; and continues, “Beyond Dr Faustus, I have mastered both medicine and the art of resurrection. Yet I cannot compel the un-dead to do my biddings.” At which Igor replies, “But Master, you strike fear in all those who meet your eyes. Surely—” The scientist interrupts him: “Fear!” he scoffs. “What sort of sympathy will fear create in my audience? Do not argue with me, boy. Your understanding of pathos1 is sadly deficient.
Plato would have agreed with our wicked scientist. According to him, emotions do nothing to advance logic, so to instil fear in one’s audience would be to undermine the logos2 supporting one’s argument. If you have already taken Language Acquisition 3: Public Speaking in Theory and Practise, you will know that logos happens in the body of your speech or essay — the part where you present the arguments to back up your thesis. As a text or speech stands or falls with its reasoning, Plato was definitely onto something when he said that it was a good idea to have some solid points. According to him, scaring your peers and teachers does not constitute a proper argument, as it leaves them unable to judge your point rationally. (Then again, the midpoint is usually where your audience falls asleep, so it might not be such a bad idea to shake things up a little).
Of course, Plato had a tendency to clash with his fellows, so it should hardly surprise you that Aristotle said pretty much the opposite. His theory recognises that “emotions are ‘permeated by reason’” (Pfau), one of those emotions being fear. This challenges Plato’s claim that emotion and logic do not mix, and are, in fact, like north and south. However, fear in itself is not the aim of the fear appeal. Pfau refers to Robert M. Gordon’s “Fear”, a work that distinguishes between fear-induced behaviour — of the kind “I see zombies, I run” — and a cognitive response to fear. It is the latter that an orator or writer must try to shoot for: a rational response to a situation that would usually leave one frozen in shock. To roll with the “I see zombies” example, a cognitive response might be: “I see zombies, who will probably catch up with me before long, only to devour my brains. So it is probably wise to blast their heads off with this conveniently deserted shotgun while I still can.”
Unless the orator intends to use the shotgun-bearer as a shield, she will have little use for a response like that, so she might say: “That weapon will only get rid of a handful zombies, tops. After that, you are a goner, so I recommend you take refuge with me until this dreadful Halloween is over, and the un-dead return to their graves.” While she mixes in a dash of logos — you have too little ammo to take on all those brain-feeders — the primary concern here is the threat of being overwhelmed by our mad scientist’s zombie army. The shotgun-bearer has two options: (a) become a snack for the un-dead, or (b) flee to safety together with the orator, and maybe slay some monsters here and there with that weapon. He would have to be some serious Evil Dead fetishist to opt for (a).
While Aristotle did not speak of the un-dead3, but of politics, the above example does pass the set of guidelines he provided on how to properly frighten one’s audience. The first criterion for a successful fear appeal is proximity, both in distance and in time. Imagine the orator were to inform you that the Breestraat is infested with un-dead. You are at the Lipsius building. It probably won’t take those zombies long to get to you — whereas you would probably feel far less threatened if they were mounting the Statue of Liberty.
The second criterion is the possibility of hope. The orator can hardly expect to give a successful speech when you are with your back against the wall, and a zombie is busy trying to comprehend your anatomy. At this point, she has stepped in too late to deliver an appealing alternative. Her audience is stuck in what is called “necessity”, when there is nothing that can be done to improve the circumstances. Aristotle claims the orator would essentially be persuading oxygen, as people do not deliberate on what falls in the necessity category. But then I suppose he has never seen exam candidates fret after the answers to their maths finals have been published.
So, if the zombie outbreak is indeed confined to the Breestraat for now, the orator still has a chance of dragging you along for an elaborate escape. You might not make it, but who knows? This “who knows”, this sliver of hope, is the “contingent”. Better take that woman up on her offer. Frankie Joe Melton, Jr. wrote a dissertation on the argumentum ad baculum4, in which he adds that the possibility of hope is too general, as not everyone will have the same odds of making it out alive. He argues that a fear appeal must be fine-tuned to a specific audience. For instance, trying to influence elderly with walking sticks to make a break for it would fall in the necessity category—a group of young, fit athletes would be another story entirely.
Aristotle does make a different type of distinction, namely that between the immortal audience and the Eeyores. It seems that he has not thought of a solution for persuading the latter type, the one that believes things cannot get much worse regardless of what happens, or that feels like trying to turn the situation around is pointless. For the former group, he does offer a solution. If you have ever seen De Allerslechtste Chauffeur van Nederland (“The Worst Driver in the Netherlands”), you will know what I mean: “I always round corners in urban areas at eighty kilometres per hour, and nothing has ever gone wrong,” and “Other people get accidents, but not me.” Aristotle would tell such people even adrenaline junkies consider it dangerous. Or, to return to our on-going zombie apocalypse: even Brad Pitt would not survive it.
Although with a highly simplified analysis of his audience, Aristotle has covered all his bases. In theory, anyway. In the case of a zombie outbreak, I think he is probably right: yes, it is justified to warn one’s audience for the threat, even if one cannot do it nicely. But the fear appeal falls flat on its face in equally or perhaps more threatening scenarios such as climate change. Whereas that poor baby polar bear of the first footnote will earn the orator a lot of sympathy points, telling her audience that they will all drown is less likely to work. Why? First of all, the threat does not match up with proximity. Surely it will be a long time before sea levels rise that much (temporal proximity); and the water will not reach the audience (spatial proximity). Secondly, is there a possibility of hope? The audience might feel that an individual cannot effect a positive change. Further, if one accepts Aristotle’s view of audience, one half will feel like climate change will not affect them, and Brad Pitt might not even be around anymore when things really start to become an issue. (Pitt is forty-nine, by the way.) The other half will feel doomed from the start.
So, in short: fear appeals are only going to work if danger is imminent, and if there is a chance that the specific audience can overcome it. One-day zombie attack? I am with Aristotle all the way—at least, if he provides us with an air vent escape. But perhaps it is a better idea to ignore fear, as Plato argues5, in less Octoberesque scenarios. With the un-dead gunned down, and poor Igor fired for daring to argue with his master, I wish you a happy Halloween and a zombie-free November.
by Valerie Brentjes
1. Pathos is a classical term used in rhetoric to refer to emotional appeals. Put simply: end your plea for green energy with a photo of a baby polar bear, and the donations will be pouring in.
2. Logos is one of pathos’ best friends, and they really like taking turns doing speeches. Whereas pathos creates sympathy, logos, or in modern English ‘logic’, is a fan of rational thought and well-supported arguments. The last third of the trifecta, ethos, will not be addressed in this article.
3. If the dead had any inclination to return to Athens, all they had to do was slip past Kerberos, some inept guards, and Hades, who would probably be too busy courting Persephone to notice anyway.
4. Lit. ‘appeal to the stick’. This type of argumentum is an attempt to justify oneself or one’s point by threatening with force.
5. I feel I would do Aristotle a disservice by neglecting to point out he was a fan of logos as well — when he was not busy scaring the pants off his audience, anyway.
Melton, Frankie Joe, Jr. “A Rhetorical Analysis of Argumentum Ad Baculum in the Published Sermons of George Whitefield.” Order No. 3411370 The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2012. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web.
Pfau, Michael William. “Who’s Afraid of Fear Appeals? Contingency, Courage, and Deliberation in Rhetorical Theory and Practise.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 40.2 (2007): 216-37. ProQuest. Web.